Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On The Stupidity Of #Sheepdogs

There are four kinds of people. Wolves, sheep, sheepdogs… and then there are people who know they don’t belong in any of those categories, because that’s just stupid.

You say I’m naïve, of course. I’m a sheep. And sheep don’t believe the wolves exist. We don’t believe any of this applies. That’s what makes us sheep. The entire notion of the sheepdog is to make criticism of force impossible, by portraying any potential critic as naïve. But here’s why it’s wrong: I know that evil exists. Hell, everyone knows evil exists. Are there significant numbers of people walking around arguing that there’s no evil in the world? Is that really a problem? No. The naïvete comes from somewhere else. It’s more common. It’s more insidious.

 We don’t pretend that evil doesn’t exist. We pretend that we can’t do it ourselves.

 Simplistic and comforting parables about animals in the field help us play at this game. And pretending allows us to get away with the wickedness we’d like to do. To say it wasn’t evil, but necessary and noble.

 People do awful things, sometimes just for the sheer joy of committing horror – I understand that. But nothing beats the pleasure of committing atrocities for a good cause. Can any of you deny that? Knowing what you know about our own country’s history and the history of human beings in general? Can anyone say we’re not looking for a fight?

The sheepdog people – not all cops or soldiers, but those who really think they’re a breed apart as they load their assault rifles and strap on body armor, as they breach someone’s door and throw his family, terrified, to the ground… They can blind themselves to what they do. Because what they do is in every movie theater and toy store and in video games played across the country, and don’t you ever say we don’t think it looks fun. People invest billions of dollars in it because it looks fun, and they don’t generally lose.

We don’t prepare for war, because we want peace. We prepare for war, because war is exactly what we want. We don’t use violence because it solves problems. We do it even when it creates more problems than it could ever solve – as the most heavily armed nation in human history, whose population is still under threat from prehistoric imbeciles after 14 years of a global campaign of intervention and targeted killing, you’d think that would finally dawn on us. You’d think we’d finally realize that people like putting on uniforms and shooting each other and incinerating each other’s homes, and it’s because of some flaw in our character, some stupid neurological quirk that might have been useful when we stabbed elephants with sticks and worshipped the sun… but is pretty foolish now that we’re smart enough to hit every major population center with a nuclear warhead in the space of a busy afternoon.

You’d think we would finally understand that yes, you need people willing to use violence to protect civilization from others willing to use violence. Yes, you use killers to stop killers. And that it is a hard job to be a citizen-predator because of the dreadful paradox it embodies, and because of how much human beings, all of us, secretly long for violence and look forward to death. And we should therefore honor those who are willing to kill for us, to try to understand and appreciate what they do. But above all, we need to watch them.

 I’m sure there are plenty of soldiers and cops who understand this. Because they are also citizens. They try to excel at the former as a way of excelling at the latter. But we all know, let’s admit it, that the people who use violence for our state are a mixed bunch. They always have been. Some of them are very good at what they do. Security forces protect a free society. But they also – throughout history – have always been a mortal threat to that freedom as well. They stop the Nazis… and then they stack naked prisoners in little pyramids. Adult citizens of a free republic admit this. They know the job of citizen is mostly about being skeptical. And so we have to investigate every use of deadly force by every cop. And when a sniper tells us he shot 250 people in the chaos of a counterinsurgency war over which our leaders have repeatedly lied and our intelligence has repeatedly failed, and he claims every single one – every single goddamned one – of those kills was righteous… Well, we don’t believe nonsense like that. Grownups don’t believe such claims.

We’re supposed to respect people in uniform. But we’re not supposed to treat them like Batman. It’s childish. It gets in the way of thinking clearly about what they do and why they’re doing it. And therefore it betrays the civic virtues of the country those people are supposedly protecting. That country, and those virtues, are worth defending. Even from our leaders. Even from our heroes.

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UPDATE (2/4/15): I've noticed readers have criticized the use of the term "prehistoric imbeciles" to describe the people who threaten us. I want to make it clear that I'm referring to ISIS and al-Qaeda, two groups whose ideology is nihilistic, backward, and yes, imbecilic. But this post is not - let me be emphatic - some kind of general critique of Arab or Muslim culture. I've read those critiques, because part of my job is to make fun of Fox News. I think Arabs and Muslims have had enough lecturing from Western cultural and political elites. I do not want to add to that. But I do think it's necessary to heap scorn on the people we're fighting. They're out of ideas, and we know it. That's part of how and why they will lose. Those are my thoughts. Gimme some comments. My responses will be in the comments as well.


  1. I really liked this essay, however I stumbled over the phrase "prehistoric imbeciles." I wonder if the same point about their organization and resources can be made without sounding so...icky. This piece seems to be in your voice, as opposed to your satirical pieces that express views opposite to your own. Given that, those words stood out to me and were unexpected.

    1. My idea here is that treating al-Qaeda and ISIS with a certain degree of scorn helps delegitimatize them, and that this is always a good thing. I don't have respect for the people in this group, and I don't think anyone else should. I actually think we're in a fight with them - we're just going about it wrong. That's my explanation. I'm not arguing with you. Do you mind explaining further?

    2. By "people in this group" I am ONLY referring to terrorists. This is not a broader Fox-style critique of Muslim or Arab communities. I thought it was clear. But is this your concern?

    3. Yeah, that's what I figured, but I also thought that read without the context of your other stuff it could very easily be interpreted either way.

      ...Though I see I've fallen into the classic liberal crusader trap of saying "well of course *I* understood it, but someone *else* might get the wrong idea..."

      Ultimately, just two words. I'm nitpicking. I'm with you 100% that murderers of innocent people should be delegitimized.

    4. I'm glad you brought this to my attention! Thanks for reading.

  2. That wily old traitor Bobby Lee is supposed to have said "It is well that war is so terrible else we would grow to love it too much."

    And if we were honest with ourselves - a difficult task and seldom attempted - we'd admit that there are few powers as frighteningly addictive as the power to become Death, Destroyer of Worlds. To take life, or lives.

    I was an artillery fire direction chief. One of my tasks was to give verbal fire commands to the battery. "Stand by", "Number One, one round"...that wort of thing. When the battery "fired for effect" - that is, shot one or more rounds from every gun in the battery - giving the command "Battery...FIRE!" and hearing the thunder of the guns and the distant rumble of the rounds impacting was...well, it felt like being the God of War; fearsome and bristling with spines. Deadly.

    The honest evaluation is that this is brutal and bestial; that no matter what the "cause" or the reason that the actual doing of the deed is evil; that sometimes that evil can forestall a greater evil but that it is an evil all the same.

    But to admit to that honestly would be to accept that you, and I, and that nice person over there can do dark, evil deeds. And since we are "nice" people that cannot be, for only evil men do evil deeds.

    Thus do we fool ourselves and do our atrocities with a smile and a whistle.

    1. That's an important thing to say, man.

      I also want to add that as civilians, we get to watch the video feed of all this on CNN, which gives us a vicarious thrill. But we can pretend we have nothing to do with it. We didn't elect the people who sent that 22 year-old into that mess! Noooo.... We didn't give the CIC a 5-point (who am I kidding?) I mean, 40-point bump in the polls for turning someone's home into an action film.

    2. And like you said, IT REALLY MIGHT HAVE BEEN NECESSARY. I'm not a pacifist, and I understand we need our warriors. But damn, let's at least take a moment here and think about ending life.

  3. I wrote a post a while back proposing an individual declaration of responsibility for declarations of war. Whenever Congress votes to send the U.S. military overseas, or votes aid to an ongoing war, each member has to sign a statement of responsibility. The statement would basically say, "I understand that in modern warfare large numbers of innocent civilians inevitably die. I have looked at the facts and decided that these innocent deaths are justified by the goal of our military intervention, which is (fill in the blank). Signed, Senator Fourhorsemen"

    They should at least spend a moment accepting responsibility for the inevitable and acknowledging the tradeoff. Maybe a few minutes trying to fill in the blank would turn a couple of votes.


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